This morning, Vevo — the video network with investments from Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Abu Dhabi Media Group, as well as interest from Google — announced its new CEO, four months after the departure of founding leader Rio Caraeff. Taking his place will be Erik Huggers, an executive with extensive experience leading companies towards the future of video. At the BBC, Huggers introduced executives, including current New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson, to the idea of the iPlayer in 2007, one of the earliest moves by a large-scale traditional broadcaster into online streaming. From there, Huggers went to Intel, helping developing its OnCue system, later acquired by Verizon and an ambitious, if unsuccessful, early attempt at hardware integration between live television and web-driven mobile streaming.
Vevo itself went through a tumultuous final quarter of 2014, with its reported $1 billion sale falling through and the leadership in a holding pattern. Regardless, the company claimed an 86 percent increase in viewership this past January over the same month in 2014, and its YouTube channels regularly rank high on that streaming giant’s most-subscribed list.
In an early Q&A on Huggers’ first day in Vevo’s New York office — “I’m still trying to find the bathroom,” he joked — the executive outlined the broad strokes of his strategy and the fast-evolving online video market, which has seen an explosion of activity over the past year alone.
When did you first begin discussions on taking over for Rio Caraeff?
Somewhere just after the New Year, middle of January. It’s been quite a process, to be honest. My takeaway from it has been that shareholders are very serious about the future of this company.
Did you speak with your predecessor before his departure?
Before he left I had discussions, but they were informal, nothing to do with the job. When i was at Intel, we were talking about incorporating Vevo into the OnCue platform, so that’s how I became acquainted with him. I think he did an amazing job at building Vevo into what it is.
Can you describe the process of developing OnCue, your major project at Intel that was eventually sold to Verizon?
It was an over-the-top TV platform that we built from scratch — every bit of code, all the software, hardware, design. We started with four people, a plan and a checkbook, and ended up 18 months — and many acquisitions — later, with 400 people and what I would call one of the most advanced video platforms in the world.
It was a push forward, in context. Back in those days none of that existed, and people were even questioning whether it was technically possible to deliver live television to audiences on the go. So the goal was to bring together linear TV and the Internet — recommendations, etc. Taking down the walls.
The iPlayer was, to my knowledge, one of the earliest examples of a broadcaster bringing its content online. Can you tell me about that process?
Reed Hastings [co-founder and CEO of Netflix] said in an interview recently that he credited iPlayer as being the original trailblazer for online video. I thought that was very, very high praise! We launched BBC iPlayer on Christmas Day 2007, and it was one of the very, very, very first television OTT [over-the-top] services.
How was the culture at the BBC, trying to explain the iPlayer to your bosses?
[Laughs] The BBC in particular is an organization that has been around for more than 90 years — it is a traditional broadcaster. But I had the very good fortune that my boss, Mark Thompson, was very much of the mind that the BBC needed to change. With that partnership, Mr. Thompson and myself set out to change the BBC, and I think we succeeded in many ways. To embrace the Internet as the next big medium, before anyone caught wind of that.
So, where does Vevo go now? The last year or six months even in the online video space has been wildly explosive.
Online video is exploding, and you’re right, the last six months have been extremely exciting. But when I looked at the Vevo opportunity, I said ‘My god, this is one of the leading video assets on the planet and there is so much more than we can do with it.’ Original programming, the brand, product features.
As I’ve said, I’ve just sat down for the first time in a Vevo chair, so I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. But when I thought about leaving Microsoft for the BBC, I saw a great brand, content and an ambition around technology — and a willingness of the management to make a difference in this world. I see the same things here; a shareholder group that’s ambitious, that wants to build this business over the long term. An audience in the millions and millions, consuming video at ever-increasing rates — it continues to shock me, how much time people have for video. Between the time when I started at BBC and here, it’s very striking. It’s going to be a very exciting 12/24/36 months. The ambition is just going to go up.
What do you think about exclusives and windowing — Jay Z and Tidal have based their entire strategy around it.
My personal opinion, not Vevo’s — from a content perspective, the game of exclusives is as old as the media industry. Movies are just a form of windowing. So you know, will it be around in the online space, absolutely. It is already. Hulu, Netflix — it’s there. It’s ever more difficult to cut through the clutter and to get audiences to pay attention.